Checking in with my Goethequest: Campaign in France 1792, Siege of Mainz!

In August, 1792, Goethe accompanied his sovereign, Duke Carl August of Saxe Weimar, during the Prusso-Austrian invasion of revolutionary France to restore Louis XVI to full power as king. After the cannonade at Valmy on 20 September, the German armies were forced to retreat, never again to threaten the heart of France until the end of the Napoleonic period. The French invaded the Rhineland and captured the city of Mainz and incorporated it into the French republic. When German armies subsequently besieged Mainz, Goethe witnessed the capture of this city at the end of 1793.

Goethe subsequently wrote Campaign in France 1792, Siege of Mainz, as the last of three major autobiographical works. This narrative has become a classic text for the history of the Franco-German relations during the revolutionary period.

Campaign is a recollection of historical hindsight and a fascinating document of the military catastrophe exposing the decline of Prussian power since the death of Frederick II, which was eventually to culminate in Napoleon’s devastating 1806 victory at Jena and Auerstedt. This is Part Four of Goethe’s series of From My Life: Poetry and Truth [translated by Thomas P. Saine, Professor of German, U of California, Irvine and the editor of Goethe Yearbook.]


These are the reflections of Goethe in Book Seventeen considering the fate of the World-his immediate world.

In peacetime the populace surely has no more enjoyable reading material than the public papers which give us quick news about the latest world events. They provide an innocent exercise for the steady, prosperous burgher’s partisan spirit which we can never be free of nor should we be.

Frederick II, secure in his might, still seemed to be meting out the fate of Europe and the world. Catherine, a great woman who had considered herself worthy of the throne, gave much latitude to some competent favorites so that they might extend her sovereign power ever more widely.

The world took an even more active interest when an entire people set about liberating itself. We wished the Americans every success and the names of Franklin and Washington began to shine and sparkle in the political and wartime sky.

The well-meaning king of France showed every intention of devoting himself to the noblest goals and the abolition of various abuses, of introducing a stable national economy, of renouncing all arbitrary power, and of ruling solely with order and justice, then the brightest hopes spread over the whole world, and trusting youth felt assured of a fine, nay, a splendid future for itself and the whole epoch [549].”

These reflections follow some of the biggest events in the world:

1790-1800.   FRANCE

  • April-The Legislative Assembly declares war against Austria, starting the French Revolutionary Wars
  • June–Prussia declares war against France
  • August– Tuileries Palace in Paris is stormed and Louis XVI is arrested; the first person executed by guillotine in the Place du Carrousel
  • September– Massacres of Roman Catholic bishops and more than 200 priests; Versailles massacres
  • December= Trial of Louis XVI of France begins

1790-1800. UNITED STATES

  • 1791– Bill of Rights Ratified
  • 1797- John Adams inaugurated/ Jefferson VP
  • 1801- Thomas Jefferson becomes President
  • 1804-Aaron Burr/Alexander Hamilton duel (for the Hamilton fans!)

1790-1800.   GERMANY

  • Enlightenment: World Class leaders immerge from the Age of Enlightenment: philosophers Leibniz and Kant, writers Kant, Goethe and Schiller, and musicians Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
  • Napoleon relaunched war against the Holy Roman Empire and Prussia gained territory in north-western Germany
  • The Holy Roman Empire was formally dissolved and Francis II resigned
  • Austria and Prussia remained a major part of Germany


In the preceding chapters to Campaign in France, Books Seventeen-Twenty, Goethe discusses literary matters, specifically German poetry, which “has endured to the present day (1803-1820) and will be undiminished in the future”—I am writing a review of Goethe today, two hundred years later!

Goethe went back several centuries to the poetry when “the general demands for meter and rhyme could not be given up”! These poets who used traditional rhyme by observing syllabic values “succeeded best”. He came to appreciate the poetry from another era; however, he did not want to examine poetry from the minnesingers as he would have had to study their language first—“we wanted to live, not to learn” (555). Love this. Ironically, Goethe was a linguist, first and foremost, and was a life-long learner, a unique trait which continues to draw me to his work and his life.

Goethe expresses a sincere wish, here, that his significant works, “nay, a lifetime of attention and toil”, will be preserved. His short explanatory notes will reveal the origins and intentions more clearly to thinking men”(556). Thinking men—”may those more deeply studious persons who someday set eyes upon these things be so kind as to notice that a sincere endeavor underlay all these eccentricities…where:

Honest wishes strive against presumption, nature against tradition, talent against forms; genius struggles with itself, strength against effeminacy, undeveloped excellence against fully developed mediocrity.

From the remainder of Book Seventeen through Book Twenty, Goethe recounts his trip to Switzerland and the relationships with his mother, sister, Lavater, his remembrances of his darling Lili, and culminates with the presence of an excellent artist, Georg Melchior Kraus, born in Frankfurt and educated in Paris.

As Goethe traveled about Europe, including France and Italy, he observed that “When anyone ran about the world on foot, without clearly knowing why or whiter, that was called a ‘genius journey’”(584). He took these journeys with energetic, often genuinely gifted young men who “went astray in their lack of restraint”. In contrast, his older friends were “perhaps deficient in talent and spirit”.

And so, Goethe found himself in the middle hindered more by the false cooperation and influence of those who were of like mind than those who were in opposition, the contrary-minded. During these travels, “words, epithets, and phrases maligning the highest intellectual gifts were propagated in such fashion among the mindlessly imitating crowd that can still be heard today, in common life, from the mouths of uncultivated people” (585).

The remainder of Part 4: My Life Poetry and Truth is composed of four parts: the campaign in France, August through October, 1792; the journey through Westphalia; the winter in Weimer (my favorite part); and the siege of Mainz. This is a chronology of a year of Goethe’s life using different poetic and stylistic means. It Part 4, Goethe expresses feelings of isolation and of being exposed to a hostile and uncomprehending world as he is alone in his chaise, on horseback and in a boat. He was able to detach himself from the main body of the army before it had reached Verdun. He then traveled to Düsseldorf to visit an old friend, Fritz Jacobi, and seek recuperation and compensation for the sufferings of the campaign.

Goethe’s famous motto from this experience: Auch ich in der Champagne!  (I too in the Champagne), could mean that he too had an account of the campaign to offer.